You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

A historic all-Black town wants reparations to rebuild as a ‘safe haven’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/1/2022 Emmanuel Felton

TULLAHASSEE, Okla. — If you really concentrate, you can imagine the town that this community’s elders describe. There was the grocery store on the highway, and the gas station. There were the shops where children walked to buy lunch for 50 cents on school days. There was Ms. Sadie’s chicken shack and Dr. Minor’s office. All of that’s gone now. In their place, either vacant lots or dilapidated buildings.

Today, you’re more likely to see loose dogs than people on Lincoln Street, the town’s main drag. There are a couple of horses in a yard just across from the town hall, which used to be the center of a bustling commercial district. Now, Lincoln Street has a handful of homes, the low-slung cinder-block town hall, two churches and just one storefront, Bates Barbecue.

The once-thriving all-Black town of Tullahassee was ravaged by government policies that divested it and other Black communities, said Mayor Keisha Currin. And she says the city is owed reparations to get back on its feet.

Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin is working to revitalize her town of 83 and seeking resources to address decades of anti-Black government policies. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin is working to revitalize her town of 83 and seeking resources to address decades of anti-Black government policies.

Last year, Currin joined Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE), a group founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. It counts more than a dozen mayors across the country as members, and its goal is to become a laboratory for new reparations programs that address slavery and the decades of explicitly anti-Black government policies that followed.

“There’s never been a moment like this in American history,” said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. “I’ve worked on this issue my entire adult life, and it’s only recently that I’ve seen reparations move from the political fringes to the mainstream of discourse.

“There are initiatives that are sprouting up daily all across the country, and that’s a recognition of the growing demand, and of the generational damages and harms not only of enslavement but all of the legacies of enslavement, all the racially discriminatory policies, including redlining and policies like the GI Bill where Black people were excluded,” Daniels said.

Supporters say they have the votes in the House to pass a reparations bill after years of lobbying

As the idea of reparations is being explored in communities across the country, Tullahassee stands out. In addition to being the smallest member of the MORE coalition — population 83 — it has a unique connection to the idea of reparations. Other cities are seeking ways to redress the harm they inflicted on their Black residents; Tullahassee was the victim, not the perpetrator, of racist policies. Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws, banks’ refusal to lend money to residents and businesses, and the fear that engulfed people as the government stood by and allowed White mobs to ravage and destroy the nearby Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, all helped bring down Tullahassee. Its vision of reparations involves finding resources to rebuild the town and, by doing so, creating a blueprint for the hundreds of all-Black communities that once dotted the United States and drew African Americans fleeing racial violence.

“[Oklahoma’s Black communities are] overdue,” said Mayor Currin, 38, a fourth-generation Tullahassee resident. “You’re talking about funding, you’re talking about grants, you’re talking about missed opportunities just because of the town that you live in...And so being able to be a part of rebuilding and reparations...is definitely monumental for our communities.”

The Carter G. Woodson School closed in 1990. Tullahassee students now attend school in another town. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post The Carter G. Woodson School closed in 1990. Tullahassee students now attend school in another town. An abandoned home in Tullahassee. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post An abandoned home in Tullahassee. A sign along Lincoln Street and Route 51B tells of Tullahassee's history. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post A sign along Lincoln Street and Route 51B tells of Tullahassee's history.

On a bright, brisk February afternoon, Tullahassee’s town hall took on the air of a family reunion as current and former residents came together to talk to planners from the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities about what they wanted for their town. As people laughed over barbecue and distant cousins worked out how they were related, community members sketched out their vision: more housing, fewer loose dogs on Lincoln Street, the renovation of the old gym, more spaces for kids to play and the clearing of overgrown lots. By the end of the weekend, the team from the University of Oklahoma had drawn up an action plan that then-Town Manager Cymone Davis planned to pass on to another team, this one from Oklahoma State University, to help build out.

This had been Davis’s job for the past year and a half — finding and marshaling resources to rebuild Tullahassee. Davis, a native of Kansas City, Mo., first learned about Tullahassee from the documentary “Struggle and Hope,” which chronicled the history of Black towns in Oklahoma. At the time, Davis, a former educator, was planning a private Black boarding school inspired by the 100 such schools that existed across the country before desegregation. After seeing the documentary, she decided it had to be in Oklahoma. That’s when she contacted Currin on Facebook.

Currin, who has a full-time job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Davis instantly felt a bond, and the mayor started pushing Davis to move to Oklahoma to help her rebuild Tullahassee. Davis was sold when she realized that she had roots in the area, and in 2020, she moved to Tulsa on the Tulsa Remote program, which provides grants to people who work from the city. After that, Currin offered her a job as Tullahassee’s first town manager.

Before Davis arrived, Currin had been working for years out of the limelight to turn around the town’s fortunes. When she took office, Tullahassee was facing a crisis. It owed the neighboring town of Porter over $30,000 in past-due water bills, and the mayor of Porter was threatening to cut off Tullahassee’s water. For a town that takes in less than $2,000 a month, that was a huge bill. It took Currin years to pay it off. She applied for grant after grant, but could secure only one, from the Eastern Oklahoma Development District.

What the story of one family reveals about reparations

Davis brought new energy to Currin’s dream of revitalizing her hometown. She became Tullahassee’s one-woman public works department, recruiting volunteers to clean up the roads and restore the A.J. Mason Building — constructed in 1912 and the only surviving building from Tullahassee’s heyday — and pushing through the annexation of land Tullahassee had lost over the years, something Currin had long tried to achieve. It was on a trip to Los Angeles, where Davis was on the hunt for resources for the town, that she connected with Garcetti’s office and learned about the MORE coalition.

“I was able to bring in resources and a network and then Keisha had the trust of this community, so we have been able to do a lot of things really quickly,” Davis said excitedly. “Sixteen months ago, no one knew about Tullahassee. Now we are in this MORE coalition, now we have [the University of Oklahoma] and [Oklahoma State University] here. It’s just like whiplash.”

Tullahassee is thought to be the oldest of the more than 50 Black communities that sprouted up in Oklahoma between the Civil War and the Great Depression. It traces its roots back to 1850 when a school was built in the area by members of the Creek Nation. The tribe had been forced into present-day Oklahoma, which was then called Indian Territory, from Florida and Alabama during the infamous Trail of Tears. The tribal members brought with them the enslaved Black people they had purchased in the South.

In 1866, during the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. government signed a new treaty with the Creek Nation that forced the tribe to give up its enslaved people and grant them tribal citizenship. These formerly enslaved people became known as Creek Freedmen, and across Oklahoma, they formed prosperous agricultural communities that supported schools, businesses and churches.

People attend a service at Pleasant Grove Church in Tullahassee in February. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post People attend a service at Pleasant Grove Church in Tullahassee in February.

After a devastating fire at the Creek school in 1881, the Creek Council decided to relocate its people out of the area and turned the town over to the Black Freedman. Tullahassee and other Freedman towns created companies to recruit Black people fleeing the racial terrorism of the post-Reconstruction South and bring them to these communities created and governed by and for Black people.

Tullahassee grew quickly. It got its own post office in 1899 and was officially incorporated in 1902. But the effort to draw more Black people to the area was stunted when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. When the new legislature convened, among the first bills passed was one that brought Jim Crow segregation laws to the state. Still Tullahassee, which was on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway line, continued to thrive. In 1916, Flipper Davis College, the only private college for African Americans in the state, opened in the old schoolhouse built by the Creek Nation. At its peak, Tullahassee boasted a cotton gin, a bed-and-breakfast, a railroad depot, a doctor’s office and a movie theater.

But the harsh economic reality of the Great Depression proved too much for towns like Tullahassee. While both Black and White towns in Oklahoma suffered, banks’ refusal to extend credit to African Americans meant Black businesses were decimated, and many of the residents were forced to again pick up their lives and move in search of opportunity. And it wasn’t just the Depression that pushed people out of Oklahoma’s all-Black communities; there also was fear that the racial terrorism that in 1921 leveled Tulsa’s Greenwood District, then known as Black Wall Street, would come to their communities.

“Tullahassee has always been in a fight, always fighting to exist and always fighting to thrive," said Davis. “You’re talking about decades of withheld funding and opportunities for these towns. So we are owed reparations, reparations to rebuild all of our Black communities.”

Want to read more stories about race and identity? Sign up for our About US newsletter.

Since the 1930s, Tullahassee has been defined by what it’s lost. In 1935, Flipper Davis College closed. In 1990, Carter G. Woodson, the town’s only school, closed. Only the skeleton of the structure remains. In the early 2000s, the community gym, which would draw hundreds of people on the weekends for basketball games, was shuttered. Maps documented the losses as land was de-annexed and taken over by Wagoner County or nearby Porter. Tullahassee even lost its post office and Zip code.

Currin speaks to Oklahoma State University historic preservation students at the Woodson school. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Currin speaks to Oklahoma State University historic preservation students at the Woodson school. Residents remove Christmas lights from the Tullahassee town hall. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Residents remove Christmas lights from the Tullahassee town hall. Ricardo Trotter, left, and Paul Hickman, who both grew up in Tullahassee, look over a map of the community. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Ricardo Trotter, left, and Paul Hickman, who both grew up in Tullahassee, look over a map of the community.

Currin knows the loss personally. She was a student at Woodson when it closed. She eventually graduated from nearby Muskogee High School. Afterward, she stayed in Muskogee, but then decided to move back so her son could experience a childhood like her own.

“When I grew up, I could walk freely. I knew I was safe,” Currin said. She added: “I grew up in a place that knew the value of community and love, and that’s what I wanted for my son. And now my son is doing the same things I did. On the weekends, from 3 or 4, he would walk to my dad’s house and play with my nieces and nephews. Even today, if you go by my dad’s house, everybody’s in there playing and eating together.”

In its early days, the town had the Tullahassee Town Site Company to go out and pitch the community as a place safe from the racial strife facing African Americans elsewhere, and Currin says the key to rebuilding is advertising the town once again as a place of reprieve from racism.

“Being Black and safe in America is a big deal,” Currin said. “That’s what Tullahassee has always provided. It’s just always been a safe haven for us in our community.”

But Currin and Davis aren’t the first people to dream of rebuilding Tullahassee. Robert Bates moved back to Tullahassee from Kansas City, Mo., in 1985. A Vietnam veteran, Bates had traveled across the globe, but he longed for Tullahassee, a place where he could “shoot, fish and get by on what’s in nature.” When he arrived, he immediately jumped into trying to revitalize his hometown. When you turn off the highway to enter Tullahassee, the first thing you see is the sign for Bates Barbecue, which he opened not long after returning.

“ ‘Bates, you’re wasting your money,’ they told me,” he recalled. “Maybe they were right, but I had a vision. I was sure Tullahassee could be brought back up.”

With the town’s population hovering around 100, many of them elderly residents, Bates struggled to get his business off the ground, but he had another idea. He started trying to buy up properties to build housing to attract young families. But he faced two problems. First, it was hard to find the owners of the plots, many of which were still held by residents who had scattered across America in search of better opportunities. He also faced hostility from White residents who lived in nearby towns.

“I had a sign out front of the restaurant, and someone wrote ‘n----- we don’t need you here’ on it,” remembered Bates, now 80. “So there were a lot of people working against me. There was the KKK and there were the banks in Porter that didn’t want to give me any kind of loans.”

Robert Bates moved back to his hometown and opened its only storefront, a barbecue restaurant. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Robert Bates moved back to his hometown and opened its only storefront, a barbecue restaurant. Cymone Davis wants to build a private boarding school in Tullahassee for Black students. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Cymone Davis wants to build a private boarding school in Tullahassee for Black students.

Among the people Davis brought to Tullahassee is Bruzenskey Bois, a first-generation Haitian American who manages and develops real estate in the Tampa area. After listening to Davis speak on a panel about her work in Tullahassee, he immediately felt drawn to the town’s cause.

“As a person of Haitian descent, the story of Tullahassee, that story of Black independence, really hit home for me,” Bois said. “And as a developer, my overall goal in the long term is to really go into making right where systemic racism made wrong. And Tullahassee is going to be the blueprint for that.”

Bois has contracted with Bates to buy 4½ acres of his land to develop a mixed-used project that will include retail space and multifamily housing, and although he says he was inspired by Tullahassee’s story, he is also looking to turn a profit.

“This is absolutely an investment. There’s no charity, there’s no nonprofit, but I do want to make sure I’m doing something for the people of this community,” Bois said. “It might not be a home run, but I’m going to make a profit.”

Bois said that from the beginning, he knew that the key to success for his project would be listening to what community members wanted. And he heard them loud and clear, he said: They needed commercial spaces to rebuild the economic powerhouse that was, and they needed housing.

House panel approves bill to create commission on reparations

“There’s people that want to move here today,” Currin said. “I am a firm believer that if we build it, they will come. Almost every day I get a phone call asking, ‘Is there a house there I can buy?’ ‘Is there land there for sale?’ ‘I’m trying to move to Tullahassee. Is there anything that I can rent in Tullahassee?’ And I’m like, ‘At this moment, no,’ but now I can say, ‘There will be, there will be.’ ”

Ethan Adams jumps rope outside his home in Tullahassee. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Ethan Adams jumps rope outside his home in Tullahassee. Residents walk along Oklahoma Street. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Residents walk along Oklahoma Street.

Crystal Moore, who lives in Muskogee but can trace her family back to the Creek Freedman who settled Tullahassee, is one of those people.

“It used to be an amazing statement to say that you were from Tullahassee because we took so much pride in our town and in our community and in our families,” she said. “I miss that communal part of Tullahassee. But for me and some of the other people who left to move back, we need a place to live. My parents are working on getting me back now. But I have to have somewhere to move to.”

Currin and Davis say they know that the challenges facing Tullahassee are stark. Given the history of hostility from some of their White neighbors, Davis said they’ve already started to think about how to keep a flourishing Tullahassee safe.

“As we rebuild these townships, we’re thinking about safety and protection — that has to be number one,” Davis said. “We’re even talking about, as we’re building, how we probably need to cover some stuff from the highway so people don’t really see what’s going on.”

This year Davis stepped down as town manager, but she still works closely with Tullahassee. She resigned, in part, because the town was only able to pay her a salary of $9,000. She has since started a company, Black Towns Municipal Management, to do the sort of work she’s been doing in Tullahassee in the hundreds of other struggling all-Black communities across America. And she still hopes to build her Black boarding school in Tullahassee. So she continues to work closely with Currin and Tullahassee’s MORE commission, which includes community members, academics and Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell (R). The commission is looking to bring both public and private dollars into the town. While some members work to secure government historic preservation funds to rehab structures like the old A.J. Mason building and the Carter G. Woodson School, others are focused on bringing more private developers like Bois to the town.

Pinnell said there has been a lot of interest in Black history tourism in Oklahoma since Tulsa’s Greenwood Massacre gained national attention, and he thinks those tourist dollars could turn into long-term investments for Tullahassee and Oklahoma’s other surviving Black towns.

“We think all of this interest and tourism can lead to some real economic development,” Pinnell said. “So we’re looking at using American Rescue Plan Act dollars, we’re trying to shake the trees at the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, and we’re getting the Department of Commerce to talk up these towns to companies looking to locate in Oklahoma.”

Marty Hytche, who lives and works in Tulsa but has remained deeply involved in rebuilding his hometown, says that’s what this community is owed by Oklahoma and America.

“We’re not asking for a handout,” he said. “We’re just asking for a chance to thrive again.”

How the first reparations for slavery ended in betrayal Ethan Adams jumps rope on Lincoln Street. © Joshua Lott/The Washington Post Ethan Adams jumps rope on Lincoln Street.
AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon